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Potatoes Are Just as Effective as Energy Gels for Endurance Cycling

By Jiri Kaloc

Have you ever heard of pallet fatigue? A lot of endurance cyclists are intimately familiar with that feeling of downing the seventh gel of the day and hating every second of it. Luckily, scientists are here to help. Researchers from the University of Illinois set out to find out whether potatoes could serve as a savoury alternative to classic sweet gels. Their findings are very encouraging!

Why potatoes?

Nicholas Burd, University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor, who led the research said the main goal of the study was to expand and diversify race-fuelling options for athletes and offset flavour fatigue. “Potatoes are a promising alternative for athletes because they represent a cost-effective, nutrient-dense and whole-food source of carbohydrates. Furthermore, they serve as a savoury race fuel option when compared with the high sweetness of carbohydrate gels.”

Giro d’Italia on May 14, 2019. © Luk BENIES / AFP / Profimedia

Tested on devoted cyclists

The researchers didn’t take this experiment lightly. They selected 12 participants who were devoted cyclists, averaging 267 km a week on their bicycles. In order to qualify, all riders had to pass aerobic fitness tests, 120-minute ride, and a time trial. They were then divided into three groups, the first would only drink water during the subsequent test rides, the second would be given commercially available carbohydrate gels, and the third an equivalent amount of carbs from potatoes. All participants ate a standardized diet 24 hours before the second 120-minute ride and time trial to mimic typical race conditions. The researchers then measured blood glucose, core body temperature, concentrations of lactate, gastric emptying and gastrointestinal symptoms in all participants.

Potatoes and gels had the same effect at 60 g per hour

The study showed that plasma glucose concentrations of both gel and potato groups were similar and higher than those of the water group. The results were similar for heart rate and speed in the time trial. Professor Burd summarized the findings by saying: “We found no differences between the performance of cyclists who got their carbohydrates by ingesting potatoes or gels at recommended amounts of about 60 grams per hour during the experiments. Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve.”

harvesting potatoes on an agricultural field, Image: 369221401, License: Royalty-free, Restrictions: , Model Release: no, Credit line: marisha5 / Stock Budget / Profimedia

Bloating and flatulence could be a problem

There was one issue with the potato group, though. The riders experienced more gastrointestinal problems than the other groups, like bloating, pain, and flatulence. As the researchers hypothesize, the reason for this may be that the riders needed to eat a larger volume of food to get the same amount of carbs from potatoes as they would normally get from gels. “Nevertheless, average GI symptoms were lower than previous studies, indicating that both carbohydrate conditions were well-tolerated by the majority of the study’s cyclists,” Burd said.

Whole-food sources of carbs are an option

It seems that potatoes could be a viable option. It’s questionable whether they will rival gels at the competitive level any time soon, but as Burd puts it: “All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fuelling menus.” So, how about you, would you swap your gels for potatoes?